By Bill Walker, Sun Times, Owen Sound
It took Paige Ballantyne and Kianna O’Leary just nine months to become Canadian champions.
Oh sure the Georgian Bay Phoenix Gymnastics & Acro Club duo have spent years in gymnastics. But that was individually or with other teams in other disciplines.
The two pre-teens have only been training together since October as an acro pairs team, which makes their rise to the top of the Canadian podium all the more astonishing.
“It was cool to beat all of the city girls,” Ballantyne an 11-year-old Grade 6 student at Alexandra school, said Thursday. “We showed them that you can do it from the country. Nobody knew where we were from.”
The Phoenix club invited several high level provincial coaches, judges and athletes to the gym in July for an open workshop. The two girls attended the clinic and thought the sport looked fun and wanted to give it a try.
“It looked kind of cool that they were being thrown around,” said O’Leary, an eight-year-old Grade 3 student at Ecole Hepworth Central. “It looked really fun.”
Coaches Petra Ballantyne – Paige’s mom – and Dana Wilson figured the two would work well as a team. Their hunch has paid off.
“They were both interested in it and we wanted to start small (with just one team),” Wilson said.
“They’re both very quiet and very humble, but they’re both willing to keep working at it. It doesn’t matter what we throw at them, they’re able to keep working at it and figure it out. They just keep going until they’ve got it down.”
The two match well size-wise – Ballantyne as the base and O’Leary on top.
“She’s not very big so I could lift her right away,” said Ballantyne. “She’s like a feather.”
Training for the sport isn’t for the uncommitted. Ballantyne spends about 14 hours a week in the gym while O’Leary works out for approximately 11.
They spend about three hours each week as a team, working on their routine and their skills. The rest of the time is working on artistic gymnastics and performance acro (dance and tumbling) needed for their routine.
Ballantyne is the base and also does a little mid-manoeuvre coaching.
“She’s gentle enough to talk (O’Leary) through enough stuff,” said coach Ballantyne. “Paige can feel (O’Leary) when she has her in a lift and she can quietly tell her to move a little bit because she’s not on the right spot.”
Acro gymnastics features teams performing acrobatic moves, dance and tumbling set to music. It’s huge in Europe but only began growing in popularity in Ontario about five years ago.
It’s highest-skilled athletes move into the professional jobs with Cirque du Soleil and other performing groups.
“When we started moving up (in the difficulty of their manoeuvres), sometimes we’d be a little timid,” said Ballantyne. “We’ve got mats (for any spills) and she’s be like ‘that was fun, let’s do it again.’”
O’Leary said she likes the lifts and throws the best. “You learn more and it’s fun working with Paige,” she said.
The pair was consistently third in provincial acro cup meets over the winter. But a change in music helped them jump into first at the Ontario championships.
“The music that we had wasn’t really working for us and the new (electronic dance) music felt better,” O’Leary said.
What also helped them jump from third to first at provincials is the time they spent honing their skills. While other athletes may have been competing longer, every minute the two girls spent together had a huge impact on their base of knowledge.
“They got stronger and their confidence grew,” coach Ballantyne said. “They really worked on the little things that made them better.
“They did struggle on one skill consistently, the pitch (where Ballantyne picks up O’Leary and throws her). They kept at it and got much better. All of the other pairs they were against had many more hours of straight acro. These guys just kept working away at it.”
The win at the provincials in the spring earned the duo a spot in the Canadians.
So just nine months into their partnership, Ballantyne and O’Leary were suddenly thrust onto the national stage.
“We treated it like a fun competition so it didn’t matter what place we came in,” said Ballantyne.
Their coaches admit not knowing the pair were national champions until the final scores were on the board.
“We knew when they did their routine that they just nailed it,” coach Ballantyne said. “They were the second pairs to go, so we had to wait.”
There were eight pairs from three provinces – Quebec, B.C., and Ontario – competing in their Level 5, Age 8 to 15 division.
Ballantyne said the team is working on Level 6 elements and a few from Level 7. As levels get higher the mandatory elements become that much more difficult.
“I don’t know if we’ll be there in (the fall), we’ll have to see,” Ballantyne said, noting her partner’s all geared up for the added difficulty in some of the elements.
“She wants to do them now and I’ve had to say ‘Oh no, we’re not there yet.’”
Acro is not an Olympic sport but there is an acro world championships.
Ontario has had a tour team in the past – this year it was only for the world-level athletes. The team goes to international events and the duo hope to make one of the teams if they open again to age-level competitors.
The championship also means the club is looking to expand its acro program next season to two or three pairs and maybe even a trio, coach Balantyne said.
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